American Idol EP Per Blankens on Rush Week Cruelty, Randy's Mentoring, J.Lo Close-Ups

011243With American Idol‘s milestone 500th episode slated for Wednesday (8/7c on Fox), it seems like a good time for reflection inside The House That Kelly Clarkson Built (and Fantasia Shook to the Rafters).

To that end, we got on the phone with executive producer Per Blankens, who left his perch at Swedish Idol and took over the U.S. franchise for Season 13, to dish the changes he’s brought to the show over the last five months.

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Why has the show switched to open-ended theme nights? How successful (or cruel) were the Rush Week and Top 5 Results Night twists? And what’s with the cutaways during contestant performances? We posed all these questions and more to Mr. Blankens. Read on to hear what he had to say…

TVLINE | The first thing everyone noticed about Season 13 — right from the get-go — was vastly improved chemistry on the judges’ panel. There was none of the toxicity we saw between Mariah and Nicki last year. How would you grade the judges overall this season? And is it your goal to have some continuity by bringing Keith, J.Lo and Harry back for Season 14?
I love the panel. What we said about this season was that we would like to have a panel that would go out to dinner together even though the cameras were not on them. So, we actually took them out to dinner before we went on the road, and we could instantly tell that they liked each other and had a good time. And we managed to bring that into the audition room and it also carried over to the live shows, too. If it was up to me, I would love to have this panel forever and ever.

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TVLINE | Somewhere around Top 12, Top 11 week — we saw Harry give a fairly detailed explanation of why the judges were being so tough and so specific with their critiques — this idea of, “We have to be honest in order for you to reach your potential.” Did you specifically ask him to explain that on air? Was there any fear that if the feedback was too harsh, the viewing public might lose faith or interest in the contestants?
This competition is the real thing. You want to see the arc from when the contestants debut on the first live show all the way ’til the finale. The kids aren’t great in the beginning, and it’s the judges’ job to coach them, to give them tools so they can be better. Have you seen the movie An Officer and a Gentleman? Deep down inside, it’s love. They want to bring out the best in each contestant, and that’s how they do it. If they were to say, “you were great, you’re a superstar, you’re perfect,” that wouldn’t be honest. Compared to other shows, we’re trying to let you see the real journey. I guess it could come across as a little bit negative, but it is American Idol and this is how the process is done.

TVLINE | So, one twist this season that was pretty controversial happened during “Rush Week” — when you had 15 guys and 15 ladies in a holding room, but only let 10 of each take the stage and sing for America’s votes. In retrospect, was that too cruel? If you could do it over again, would you still have kids come all that way without giving them an opportunity to sing?
I liked how it turned out, and what I regret is that we didn’t explain properly for the viewers what had happened. The last thing that you saw [prior to Rush Week] was the Green Mile, as I call it, when the judges tell the 30 kids, “You’re through to the next round.” What we didn’t show on TV was that all the 30 kids performed in front of the judges on the very same day as the [Rush Week] broadcast, and during that round, the judges decided which 10 of each category could perform for the viewers. And they could’ve said to them [right then and there], “You’re going through, or you’re not going through,” but since it’s a TV show, they revealed that information on the live broadcast. We could’ve explained better that we didn’t fly 30 people all the way to L.A. just to have them sitting in the chamber and not performing. That week we aired Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and after the Tuesday show, we were like “Oh my God, we haven’t been clear.” We tried to put it in the script many times for the Wednesday show, but the damage was already done. [You can’t assume] the viewers got it, because how it is when you watch TV, you’re talking on your phone and you’re doing the dishes.

TVLINE | Do you think next year we might see a little more of the Idol Boot Camp that preceded Rush Week? We only saw glimpses of Adam Lambert and Chris Daughtry offering advice and sizing up the hopefuls, but I feel like that would make for really interesting television, showing us more of what happens behind the curtain.
Yeah, I liked the workshop too. It was a new thing. It gave the kids some preparation for what’s to come. Adam and Chris were super devoted – I’m very impressed with these guys. They showed up, they were there for two days — even though it was just a small segment that got shown — and they did a lot of things off camera that you never got to see.

TVLINE | Themes have been much broader in Season 13. We haven’t had Motown week or Dolly Parton week or anything that narrow, but rather, thematic umbrellas under which all the contestants try to fit — “Home,” “This Is Me,” “Recent Billboard Hits.” Have you been happy with the results in term of song choice? Were there any weeks that you feel worked out better than others?
We were going to try and make the kids pick songs they could relate to, because one of the critiques that they had the previous year was that the kids didn’t really relate to themes like Burt Bacharach and what have you. Viewers appreciate that kind of music, but maybe the kids didn’t relate. So we tried to come up with new ways to organize. This year’s been all about change – maybe we changed too much, maybe we changed too little – but I think that all the themes have their charms. I liked “America’s Request.” I also liked “Back to the Start,” which was when the kids sang their audition songs in a live show, to highlight the arc — six months later, how much they have progressed and learned. Most of the themes, in my opinion, worked out pretty well, but maybe during next season we’ll take a look at the themes again. For instance, one of the other themes was “’80s Week,” which is more similar to what the show did in the past.

TVLINE | On the flip side, though, I would say that perhaps we missed out on a little of the surprise and the drama of seeing contestants be forced out of their comfort zones and try something new — which has led to big moments in the past. I mean, we’ve heard a lot of the kids say this year, “Well I used to sing this in my sets back at home” or “I used to sing this in local bars.” In Season 14, is there a chance you might slip in a couple of more narrow theme weeks?
When this show started 13 years ago – well actually 15 if you count Pop Idol – the aim was to find a recording artist, and you’d put them through different tests. “We’re going to try you on rock and roll now, we’re going to try you on pop.” And then at the end you knew what kind of artist this kid would be. Now, the kids already know in a way what kind of artists they are, and even though you like the drama of being through different tests – having Caleb trying jazz, for example, would be interesting — this was not the year to do that. I’m sure we can do that next year, maybe that was a mistake, I don’t know, but I liked all the themes so far and I think there’ve been some good performances.

TVLINE | I loved that this year we actually got to hear a couple of contestant’s original songs during the live voting rounds — courtesy of Jessica and Alex. Is there any chance we’ll hear more before the season is over? Is there any challenge with originals in terms of clearance or iTunes or contractual considerations?
It’s not that hard to pull them off, it’s just that not all the kids are gifted at writing original songs. And the other thing is that if the audience recognizes the song, then they can relate to it and have an opinion if the contestant is doing it well or not. So, I like when you can audition with original songs, but don’t necessarily want to have too many original songs when we go into the live rounds.

TVLINE | One thing that’s always struck me about Idol is that it’s a great place for true amateurs coming from nowhere — which really differs from The Voice, where you see a lot of semi-pros. Is it harder to create musical magic when you’re starting with people who are a little bit more unpolished? This season, I feel like Majesty and Sam came in as front-runners, but on the live stage, it became clear they weren’t quite ready.
I mean, I don’t want to specifically point out two contestants – but in general, that’s part of the process. They start with the Top 13, Top 10, and then we see who can go the longest distance; it’s like a marathon. Going back to [our conversation about] the judges, and how they viewed the kids in the beginning: If everybody was super good from day one, you wouldn’t have that arc or that journey or that umm umm – I’m from Sweden, what am I trying to say?

TVLINE | That growth arc, is what I think is what you’re saying.
Yes. Some contestants grow into stars — something you wouldn’t have predicted a few weeks earlier. And some people that you really think are the next Idol, they make mistake after mistake after mistake — and then eventually get voted out. That ‘s the charm of the whole show.

TVLINE | Probably the biggest complaint I’ve seen from readers this year focuses on Randy Jackson and his role as mentor. We haven’t really seen any specific advice he’s given the contestants. Is that a fair criticism?
No. I mean Randy is our in-house mentor. He put together the workshop that you really liked, he brought in Adam and Chris. He’s been the mentor, and he’s actually working a lot — not only on camera, but off camera with the kids every week. And then he has brought in the other [guest] mentors. I think Randy’s doing a fantastic job.

TVLINE | But when David Cook and Jason Mraz came in as guest mentors, we saw them giving really actionable, specific feedback. In the weeks where it was Randy alone, we didn’t see any of that on our screens. Which makes me wonder…
I mean, in the beginning, you saw Randy — like, the three first weeks [of live shows], he was doing what David and Jason did. But then, as the show moves on and we need new content, he still does [his job] but maybe we’re not showing it enough on TV. And he has his part on Thursdays, where he talks about how it went down on Wednesdays with the kids. If you think you haven’t seen enough of him, I’m sorry, Maybe we can bring him back a little bit more now at the end [of the season], if that’s a request from you, Mike.

TVLINE | No, no, no! What I’m saying is, none of the clips we’ve seen of Randy’s mentoring have been as specific or insightful as, for example, the advice we saw David Cook providing in ’80s Week. It just strikes me that the guest mentors seem to have exceeded the in-house mentor. On that note, people loved seeing David Cook back on their screens. Would you like to see more Idol alumnae as guest mentors in Season 14?
Yeah, I think so, because this show has so many great talents, and I just love when they want to come back and help the youngsters. They know what they’re talking about. They’ve been through this process and are very sincere when they talk about it, and about all the experiences they gained after the show, too. If it was between a former Idol and somebody random, I would always go with the former Idol.

TVLINE | Season 13 has also been very different from a visual standpoint — with a lot of split screens and insets. Was that a big goal of yours, to change the look of the show? And what’s the logic behind those visuals?
Well, the split screen, the boxes, is kind of a retro thing – it was popular in the ’60s. I introduced it to Swedish Idol a few years ago, and I liked it because there’s so many cutaways that you want – y’know, when Ryan is reading who is eliminated, you want to see the face of the kid, you want to see the judges’ reactions, you want to see the family of the contestants and the audience, too. The way we solved it back home was the split screen. So I brought it here, too. We did it in the audition phase as well, to get the viewers used to this new style. I’m not necessarily sure that we’d do it next season; maybe we’ll come up with something else. But I really wanted a distinctive visual look for American Idol this season, like a fresh coat of paint.

TVLINE | During the live contestant performances, too, we’re getting a lot of reaction shots from the families, from the girls down in the pit, a lot of J.Lo, too. Why?
When you watch a movie, or watch a drama, you see expressions on other people’s faces away from the actual action, if you will. So, if we cut away to Jennifer, then you can say from the couch, to your friends, “Ahh, I think Jennifer likes this.” If we cut away when she doesn’t look happy, then that tells you something else. It’s a way of telling the story — and using cutaways to the families and the fans is the same idea. It’s storytelling, to not merely point all 16 cameras on the Idol [contestant]].

TVLINE | There are a lot of complaints that you show way too many shots of J.Lo during performances — to the point where readers have been asking if you’re contractually obligated to show her X number of times per performance or per episode.
Oh, really? They’re complaining about too many shots of J.Lo? Is that possible? [Laughs] There’s no contractual thing. We obviously want to show the whole panel, but I haven’t really done any counting of who gets the most cutaways.

011300TVLINE | The Top 5 results night twist where you asked the contestants to vote whether to keep the group in tact and cut two people the following week. Were you surprised two kids voted “No” put the kibosh on it? And was there any part of you that thinks, in retrospect, maybe it was too mean-spirited to put the contestants through that on live TV?
No, I wouldn’t say too cruel, because we wanted to give the power back to the kids. The viewers decide who goes or who stays, and then you have the Judges’ Save, where they get a say. But at no point do  the contestants themselves get to decide. It has to be unanimous — and they also voted anonymously, so we did try to figure out how we could do it without being cruel, and I think we came up with the best solution. Either everybody thinks it’s a good idea — or if somebody doesn’t, then we’re not doing it, so that’s the unanimous part of it.

TVLINE | Did you think everyone would vote yes?
I had no idea how it would end. We had two different endings in the control room: We had a code word called “confetti” or “no confetti.”

TVLINE | Did you guys decide to do the twist before or after you knew Sam was the lowest vote-getter?
We decided this before we knew who was going home.

TVLINE | One thing I really miss since you switched to half-hour results are alumni performances. Do you miss the one-hour results format? Is there any way to fit an alumni performance into the 30-minute segment? Because to me, one of Idol‘s greatest advantages is that it really produces a whole slew of musicians who people continue to follow after the show.
If we go back to the one-hour schedule, I would love to have alumnae coming back because that’s – like you said – one of the greatest things with American Idol, they have so much talent out there that we can claim is ours and we want to tell their story and that they’re still doing great. But it’s just a matter of where and when in the show to put it. Hopefully there’s more time next year.

TVLINE | What do you think has been the biggest success story for you in terms of the changes you’ve made on the show?
I would be surprised if we asked, “How about the big changes on American Idol Season 13?” that the man on the street [would really notice any]. We did a lot of small things, everything from the set design to the audition rooms to the golden ticket that the judges themselves hand out, finding the panel, to allowing guitars. Some changes played out for the better, some not – we already mentioned Rush Week – which I still think was great TV, but it was perceived as cruel to the kids. But just in general, I’m very proud and very happy to be a part of this year, and I’ve had the time of my life working on the show. The format still works, it’s still the best talent show, and the question is — does it need a big game changer for next season or not? If we do need one, we certainly have some suggestions.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhiHFyVuB_w